Although the mixing console is the heart of any studio, ultimately, it would be rendered useless without its partners in crime, studio reference monitors. With that in mind, it's important to understand the purpose of the (seemingly) simple studio monitor and examine what you should look for when making what is arguably the most important qualitative choice for your studio.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
If the console is the heart of the studio, then monitors are certainly the vocal chords. Even with expensive high-end monitors, the nature of the sound that one transmits compared to the next can be — and usually is — radically different. And because humans are not androids, each hears those anomalies in sound a bit differently. What might sound great to your ears might sound a bit shrill or tubby to mine. As you listen to different monitors (the more, the merrier), try to remember the color, the warmth or coolness, the forward or reserved presence, and the sharpness or fuzziness of each.
I have bought several pairs of monitors, and because I took my time and was very critical, I have mostly been happy with my choices — except one, my first pair. Before getting any second opinions or even looking at performance specs, check your gut reactions. If you're uncertain whether you'll be satisfied, you probably won't be.
SIZING IT UP
Choosing the general tone of the speakers that you're going to sink your hard-earned green into is just scratching the surface. That would be like shopping for a car and saying, “I like the blue one!” and ignoring the brand, the type of engine or the number of doors. In addition to tone, consider the monitors' size. In your studio, how far will you be sitting in relation to your monitors? What are the dimensions of the room that you will be listening in? These are critical questions to consider before buying.
The type of monitor indicates whether it is designed for listening to up close (near-field) or from more of a distance (midfield). Forgetting to consider this aspect was the mistake that I made with my first pair. I couldn't figure out why my final mixes always sounded so good in my studio, but anywhere else I played them, the bass sounded too loud and muddy. I was using midfield monitors in a 6-by-8-foot room, and my ears were only about three feet away while mixing. I was too close to properly hear their bass response, so I constantly overmixed the bottom end. It wasn't until later that I realized I could hear the bass frequencies properly only when I listened at the far end of the room.
Whether the monitors you are considering are near- or midfield, they should sound even across the room. When you are browsing in stores, listen in the “sweet spot,” where your ears are in the center at monitor level and your head is the same distance from the speakers as the speakers are from each another (forming an equilateral triangle). Then, move around the room as you listen. Does the sound change? Do you perceive more or less bass, or do the monitors seem to lose clarity as you go off-center? A good pair of references shouldn't. Near-field monitors are designed for optimal listening at about three to six feet away whereas mid-fields are better-suited at about a six- to 12-foot distance. Although the size of a speaker does not always dictate whether it is a near- or midfield, you can generally use size as a guide. If you are in an 8-by-8-foot room, monitors with 10-inch low-frequency drivers (woofers) might be too large. But if you are in a spacious room and plan to sit 10 feet away, a pair with 5-inch woofers might not cut it.
I purchased that ill-fated first pair of references based purely on a friend's recommendation, through mail order no less (an experience to be avoided unless you have previously heard them and have decided exactly what you want). No matter how you buy them, however, don't expect the salesperson to ask pertinent questions such as, “What's the size and shape of the room that are you monitoring in?” A savvy salesperson might surprise you — if you come armed with that knowledge, your choices will automatically be narrowed down. Think about the dimensions and layout of your room; then, check the different manufacturers for their placement recommendations for any of the monitors you are seriously considering.
TELL NO LIES
Once you find a few monitors that please your eardrums and won't upset the feng shui of your room, it's time to play hardball with the specs. The difference between a regular musician's hi-fi speakers and your studio monitors is that run-of-the-mill speakers are supposed to enhance the sound whereas yours should simply tell the truth. Remember that the job of reference monitors is not only to sound good in your studio but also to assist in making music that sounds good to the rest of the world. The trademark of an excellent studio monitor is accuracy, and that is made possible when a monitor boasts a wide frequency response that is as “flat” as possible across the entire frequency spectrum. You should look for monitors with an even frequency response that spans at least 40 Hz to 20 kHz. Otherwise, you may wind up overboosting frequencies that you want to hear but can't, resulting in mixes that do not sound good to an audience.
Choosing monitors can be a tricky business, but by making an informed, patient decision, you will reward yourself with satisfying sound that you can trust. Check out what your studio buddies are currently using, scrutinize as many different monitors and brands as possible, and make sure that your audio dealer has a fair exchange policy.